Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) victory in the Nevada caucuses Saturday will move him into the lead in the Democratic Party’s presidential nominating contest. Polling from the large states that vote on Super Tuesday suggests that Sanders may soon solidify his lead, and, should he do so, he may not relinquish it.
For a number of observers, this has spurred emotional assessments of how Sanders in particular might fare against President Trump in November’s general election. It’s easy to find oneself buffeted by various analyses of where Sanders stands and whether another candidate might fare better. With that in mind, we’ve grouped evaluations of such a matchup with an eye toward weeding out motivated rhetoric and focusing on what’s known.
There are Republicans, for example, who rose to prominence in the wake of Trump’s 2016 victory based on their opposition to his politics and presidency. Democrats embraced them as examples of Republicans who, in their view, had seen the light. Anti-Trump Republicans became a fixture in media coverage of the Trump presidency, offering oppositional voices that were in short supply — which necessarily meant overrepresenting those voices.
Both political parties often talk about building a big tent to welcome even outlier voices in part because there are only two tents from which to choose. Anti-Trump Republicans, including that subset known as Never Trumpers, found shelter in the Democratic tent from the stormy weather of the Trump presidency. But with the Democratic primaries underway, that tent isn’t so welcoming. Uniting with Democrats to oppose Trump is one thing. Allying with a party poised to nominate Sanders, though, is another thing altogether.
Often, objections to Sanders’s candidacy are sincere. These are, after all, Republicans, to whom Sanders’s liberal politics are anathema. Of course someone who has been a Republican his or her entire life can’t imagine voting for Sanders and sees Sanders as unelectable.
In other cases, though, the objections are motivated by something a bit murkier, as with pundit Erick Erickson’s warning that Never Trump Republicans would vote for Trump over Sanders — a statement that should both be tempered by Erickson’s having announced that he himself would back Trump and one that might prompt some curiosity about the meaning of “never.”
There are also some obviously insincere responses to Sanders’s candidacy, as from Trump himself. Like a college freshman feeling particularly clever after learning about reverse psychology, the president has been repeatedly insinuating that Sanders’s candidacy is at risk from the Democratic establishment. Trump clearly thinks that he and his team benefited from Sanders voters feeling tricked by the party four years ago (in part thanks to some of that Russian interference-via-WikiLeaks that Trump says didn’t happen), and he’s working very hard to amplify that feeling again.
He was asked about Russian interference in the 2020 election before departing for India over the weekend.
“I think what it could be is — you know, the Democrats are treating Bernie Sanders very unfairly,” Trump replied. “And it sounds to me like a leak — a leak from Adam Schiff, because they don’t want Bernie Sanders to represent them. It sounds like it’s ’16 all over again for Bernie Sanders.”
Some within the White House, possibly including Trump, think that boosting Sanders’s candidacy makes sense because Trump will have the easiest time defeating the senator from Vermont.
Over the weekend, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) told CBS News that he thought Sanders was the Democrats’ best choice for defeating Trump, citing the similarity between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Sanders’s run this year. Maybe he was being sincere. Maybe he was trying to send a message to a Democratic electorate focused on electability that Sanders should be their choice — because he actually believes that Sanders is unusually poorly positioned to beat Trump.
There are plenty of Democrats who share that concern, of course. While Sanders is viewed as the candidate with the best chance against Trump according to a Post-ABC News poll released last week, only about 3 in 10 Democratic primary voters identify him as the most electable candidate. In other words, two-thirds of primary voters either think another candidate has a better shot against Trump or have no opinion on the matter.
Part of that skepticism is probably born of the nature of being a Democrat in 2020. Hillary Clinton was supposed to win in 2016, after all, until she didn’t. Trump’s narrow victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin led to years of rumination about how Democrats might regain the support of working-class whites in the Rust Belt, as though he’d necessarily brought some unique new appeal to that voting bloc. (It had been trending more Republican over time.)
To demoralize Democrats, the White House and Trump have also been presenting the president as something close to inevitable. That rhetoric has another potential outcome: smoothing the path for Trump to reject a close result in November as aberrant.
None of this is to say that there aren’t legitimate questions about how Sanders would fare against Trump.
There have been a number of assessments of a Sanders-Trump contest, particularly through the lens of a comparative contest between Trump and former vice president Joe Biden.
One of the more thorough was published earlier this month in the Economist. In it and a supplemental Twitter thread, G. Elliott Morris argued that there are two ways in which more-moderate candidates see benefit in general election contests: by winning more swing voters and because more-partisan candidates tend to amplify turnout among the opposing party.
Morris was specifically considering the advantages Biden enjoyed, writing that “Biden could perform better than his competitors against Mr. Trump. He is more moderate than Mr. Sanders, so both more likely to attract swing voters and less likely to motivate Republicans to vote against him. His strength with both black and racially conservative white voters could make a big difference in swing states.”
But the corollary is clear: Perhaps Sanders is poorly positioned against Trump.
Patrick Ruffini, a Republican pollster with Echelon Insights, similarly compared Biden and Sanders. Sanders fares better against Trump with younger voters, but Biden does better with other groups. There’s overlap here with ideology, obviously, since younger voters tend to be more liberal. But Sanders, he wrote, “could well end up giving back some of Dems’ post-2016 white college gains.”
“When you interact age, income, and race/education segments, the shifts intensify,” Ruffini wrote. “Older and wealthier voters would move to Trump with Sanders as the Dem nominee, at least compared to a Biden counterfactual. Younger, less well-off voters move to Sanders.”
One challenge for Democrats is that younger, poorer voters are much less likely to vote than older ones. But neither Ruffini nor Morris is saying Sanders can’t win, just that fundamental data suggests he would have more trouble than would Biden.
If you think Democrats are well-positioned to defeat Trump anyway, a Sanders-led coalition less dependent on college whites might be attractive to you. But partisanship is not completely blinding: the evidence is that some voters would actually move based on Sanders’ message.
Another line of argument centers on the idea that Sanders’s record isn’t well known and his politics is of limited appeal. Most Americans say they wouldn’t vote for a socialist for president. Sanders isn’t a socialist, as he will remind you, but he has consistently been positioned as one by his primary opponents and the president. As voters start tuning in, the difference between “socialist” and “Democratic socialist” may get blurry.
What’s more, the analysis of Biden-or-Bernie above looks at a head-to-head contest in the abstract. Once the campaign gets underway, assuming Sanders is the nominee, things start moving in a lot of directions at once. We got a taste of that over the weekend, with Sanders being confronted with past praise for former Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Sanders largely stood by what he’d said, prompting criticism from a Democratic member of Congress from southern Florida whose district is home to a number of Cuban emigres.
“Hard to overstate how poor a fit Sanders would be for [Florida] in November,” Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman wrote in response, pointing to that community. That’s largely true — though Cuban Americans broadly have been trending more Democratic over time and Cuban Americans under the age of 50 were heavily Democratic as of 2013 data from Pew Research.
It’s important to remember that head-to-head polls pitting Trump against Sanders consistently show Sanders with a national lead, something which has been the case for months. The uncertainty of the moment and those national polls have prompted some backlash to hand-wringing about Sanders’s chances.
At Axios, Jim VandeHei walked through the case for Sanders’s strength: a fervent base that writes checks and who’s already weathered questions about his politics. He leads Trump in Michigan and Pennsylvania, according to recent polling, offering some reassurance to Democrats who’ve focused on those states as being essential to ousting Trump.
For what it’s worth, Morris notes that Sanders’s national polling is about where Clinton’s was at this point four years ago, while his swing-state polls are weaker. Several of those swing-state polls, though, were off, leading models of the 2016 election to overstate Clinton’s odds. Correcting for those errors might punish Sanders now.
It’s trite to say that the result of a Trump-Sanders election is nearly impossible to predict, but that doesn’t make it incorrect.
We only need to look back four years to see how things can get wonky quickly. Clinton led Trump nearly every day of 2016 and had a wide lead in late October. At the very end of the contest, outside factors — the letter from then-FBI Director James B. Comey, for one — and other shifts — such as skeptical independents deciding on Trump — combined to give Trump an edge in places where he needed one. Trump’s election was not really predictable in February 2016, but it happened anyway.
One can’t unilaterally reject Sanders’s chances any more than you might reject those of Trump. It’s safe to say that the only views of the outcome of the November election that should be rejected are those that are offered with certainty.
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